NEWTOWN - Slow starts have been the norm for the St. Paul girls basketball team during its dominant state tournament run into the Class S semifinals, with the Falcons coasting in three blowout wins.
But on Friday night in its much-anticipated matchup with seventh-seeded Trinity Catholic, playing catch-up proved to be too much to overcome for third-seeded St. Paul in a 56-45 loss.
“Once we got caught up we never settled down and did what we were supposed to do,” Falcons coach Joe Mone said. “Once you get in a hole against a team like that, it’s hard to fight back. We fought back, and we had some runs where I thought maybe we’d get back in it, but we just didn’t play well. At this time of year, there’s no secrets. They’re all good teams.”
After Emma Cretella got the Falcons (24-3) off to a 5-2 lead with a 3-pointer and a layup, Trinity Catholic (21-5) went on a 13-0 run, holding St. Paul scoreless from the 6:20 mark of the first quarter until there was 7:30 left in the second.
In their quarterfinal win over Bloomfield, it didn’t matter who the Falcons sent at Bloomfield standout forward Leigh Ann LaBad. Their team defense forced her into tough looks and an off night.
It was a different story against the Crusaders’ stars, as point guard Caitlyn Scott (23 points) blew past each Falcon defender who guarded her, and center Iyanna Lops (22 points) was just as lethal.
Lops nailed a pull-up three, and Scott set her up for an easy layup with a two-handed, over-the-head bounce pass in transition for an 11-5 lead. Scott then converted at the free throw line to complete a driving “and-one” before Lops netted an easy press-breaking layup.
Five turnovers and a 2-for-14 shooting performance by the Falcons contributed to the Crusaders’ 16-5 lead after the first period.
Janessa Gonzalez, who finished with a team-high 17 points, stopped the Falcons’ bleeding to start the second with her first two points of the game at the charity stripe, but Scott converted another physical, driving three-point play for a 21-7 lead with 6:30 left to cap a 19-2 run.
St. Paul responded with a 10-4 run to close the half, highlighted by Jade Udoh’s baseline jumper and Olivia Heslin’s jumper from the free throw line that bounced around and in to cut her team’s deficit to 25-17 at the break.
Scott started the third quarter with a triple for a 15-point edge, the Crusaders’ biggest lead, but Heslin and Udoh each responded with a bucket off the glass in the paint. Each was fouled but did not convert the free throw attempt.
Kyah Nowlin knocked down a baseline jumper for Trinity Catholic, and Lops’ layup finished a give-and-go for a 36-21 lead with 40 seconds to go.
But Udoh completed a three-point play on the Falcons’ next possession and Gonzalez buried a big pull-up jumper at the buzzer to cut Trinity’s lead to 10.
When Gonzalez began the fourth quarter with a driving layup with her left hand off the glass, it provided the Falcons with a spark.
But the Crusaders’ powerful duo shined once again. Scott hit a three on the ensuing possession, and Lops buried a pair of free throws to keep St. Paul at arm’s length, 41-28, with 5:25 left.
The Crusaders were fantastic at the free throw line all night, starting 15-for-15 and finishing 27-of-34.
But those seven misses came in the final three minutes to keep the door open for the Falcons.
Heslin was fouled while making a bucket in the paint. Gonzalez then rattled home a 3-pointer to cut the Falcons’ deficit to 51-45 with 49.7 seconds left before Scott polished off the win by making 5-of-6 free throws.
“That’s how we are. That’s how we’re wired,” Mone said of the Falcons’ clawing their back to within six late. “That part I’m really happy with. I just think it’s hard for them knowing they didn’t play well and having to go home. If we play a really good game then you go home, and you’re like, ‘Well, we gave it everything we had.’
“[They had] heart and effort, absolutely, but we just didn’t play a really good game. We made too many mistakes, and we got a little carried away at the beginning trying to do too much individually. We didn’t run some sets like we were supposed to. It happens. They’re 14-17-year-old kids.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org